The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House and the vote for Brexit have triggered questions about the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, not least in the world of business. But one British brand building bridges in the US is The White Company, which launched online in the country three years ago and has been “listening and learning” since, according to founder Chrissie Rucker.
That listening and learning led to the opening of the company’s first US store two months ago, on Fifth Avenue in New York’s Flatiron district, and to plans for a second store in New Jersey’s The Mall at Short Hills in early November. “We’ve been looking to open an American store for ages,” says Rucker. “But it had to be in the right spot. The beauty of being a privately owned business is that we don’t have shareholders breathing down our necks.”
Now 23 years old, the London-based lifestyle brand started when Rucker was redesigning the flat of her then-boyfriend (now husband). Aiming to keep the scheme simple by opting for white bedding, white towels, white mugs and white plates, she quickly discovered that everything was either prohibitively expensive or extremely poor quality. Deeper research showed she could source designer-quality white items and bring them into the UK at a competitive price, and shortly afterwards The White Company was born in the form of a 12-page catalogue. It has since grown up and around the entrepreneur and her family (she is a mother of four) into an iconic brand that includes 57 UK stores and whose profits hit a record £17.3m in the year ending March 2016, up 51 per cent year-on-year, with sales climbing 12.6 per cent to £184.3m over the same period.
What customers like about The White Company, she says, is its sensory products. “They love to touch the sheepskins and cashmeres, handle the duvets and pillows and experience the candles and diffusers”, and this explains why she was so keen to open an American bricks-and-mortar store. “We’ve got off to a good start in the US,” continues Rucker, who in 2010 received an MBE for services to the retail trade. “The store has been well received and the customers are buying the same as the Brits.” Bestsellers in clothing include the cashmere ballet slippers (£75), classic women’s jersey shirt (£55), Hydro cotton robes (£80) and cotton tassel scarf (£49) in washed-out blue, while its Super Balm (£25 for 150ml), Super Serum (£40 for 30ml), Flowers bath oil (£18 for 200ml) and Lime and Bay candle (£20) are among the top performers in other departments. “But it’s early days,” she says, “and we’re not going to rush to open 20 American stores really quickly. My motto is ‘strong and safe’.”
The White Company’s transatlantic ties have been further bolstered by a partnership with British Airways that will see it supply bedding and amenity kits for Club World passengers flying from Heathrow to JFK as of October. “It’s a really exciting time for the business; it feels like we are going into the next phase,” Rucker adds, emphasising the recent appointment of CEO Mary Homer, formerly of Topshop. Homer brings with her “enormous experience on a much bigger, international scale” and is currently working on a five-year plan to “consolidate the business and hopefully double its size”, Rucker says.
In a permanently switched-on world, it’s notable that The White Company’s rise has been built around its original ethos: a focus on relaxation and wellbeing. “Absolutely at the heart of what we do is making lovely things to create a calm environment – an antidote to the hectic outside world,” says Rucker, who prefers to talk to people face to face rather than “fill up their inboxes”, and is passionate about encouraging others to switch off and enjoy life. “Technology is brilliant, it’s a huge part of our lives, but when you’re plugged in 24/7 you don’t sleep well or feel well.” In the age of the internet, The White Company’s focus on home comforts, hygge and bricks-and-mortar stores embodies that wisdom.
Alyson Walsh is the author of Know Your Style: Mix It, Match It, Love It, published by Hardie Grant on September 7. She blogs at That’s Not My Age. To read more of her How To Spend It columns, click here.